In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda posted a statement on social media on Monday, apologising for the under-representation of dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in the film’s cast, particularly in the lead roles.
In his post, Miranda acknowledged that makers of the film “fell short” and while thanking those who raised the issue, added that he is “learning from the feedback”.
In the Heights, which premiered at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival on June 4, released in theatres and on HBO Max on Friday. It is directed by John M Chu, who also directed Crazy Rich Asians.
“I started writing In the Heights because I didn’t feel seen. And over the past 20 years, all I wanted was for us — ALL of us — to feel seen,” Miranda wrote, adding, “I’m seeing the discussion around Afro-Latino representation in our film this weekend and it is clear that many in our dark-skinned Afro-Latino community don’t feel sufficiently represented within it, particularly among the leading roles.”
“I can hear the hurt and frustration over colourism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback. I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy,” he further added.
In the Heights is based on a Broadway stage musical by the same name, also written by Miranda along with Quiara Alegria. It features actors Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, and Jimmy Smits among others.
Set in the neighbourhood of Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, the story revolves around Usnavi, a sympathetic New York bodega owner, played by Ramos, who saves every penny every day as he imagines and sings about a better life, as per IMDb.
The film came under scrutiny after The Root conducted an interview with the cast and crew on Wednesday, where moderator Felice Leon questioned those present about the casting choices. Pointing to setting of the film in the largely Black and Afro-Latino neighbourhood of Washington Heights, she asked about the “lack of Black Latinx people” in it.
Referring to the history of “colourism and pigmentocracy” in Latin America, Leon asked, “What would you say to folks who say that In the Heights privileges white-passing and light-skinned Latinx people?” To which, director Chu replied, “I would say that’s a fair conversation to have. Listen, we’re not going to get everything right in a movie. We tried our best on all fronts of it.”
While the film’s primary cast comprises white or lighter-skinned Latinos, the Black or Afro-Latinos are relegated to minor supporting roles such as background dancers and those in hair salons, Leon pointed out. “These roles are ones that historically, we have been able to fill”, the Black-American video-producer of Cuban descent said, adding that a lead role would be the breakthrough. “We want to see Black people in the Heights, we want to see Afro-Panamanians, Black-Cubans, Black Dominicans, you know. That’s what we want to see. And that’s what we were yearning for and hoping for.”
Miranda was not part of the interaction, but actors Ramos, Grace, and Barrera were present.
While Grace said she hoped “this [the film] is cracking that glass ceiling because I do hope to see my brothers and sisters that are darker than me lead these movies”, Barrera defended the makers and said that they “were looking for just the right people for the roles, and I think we are all very much like our characters.”
She also added, “I think it’s important to note though, that in the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there, a lot of darker-skinned people.”
Barrera received criticism for her statement, with one netizen reaching out to her and pointing out “how ignorant her comment was.”
Miranda, meanwhile, concluded his statement on Monday by saying, “I’m truly sorry. I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it, and I’m listening. I’m trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made and be accountable for our shortcomings. Thank you for your honest feedback. I promise to do better in my future projects, and I am dedicated to the learning and evolving. We all have to do to make sure we are honouring our diverse and vibrant community.”